Studying the Food Chain in Italy

by Martina (Mengtian) Zhu

Italy, well known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, is famous for its art and different styles of architecture. Last year, I spent four months in Florence as part of UConn’s Sustainable Food and Environmental Systems program to explore this beautiful city and local customs and experience an unforgettable food adventure.

When we talk about Italy, the foods that come to my mind are pizza and pasta. There are many different kinds of pasta common in Italy; they enjoy spaghetti, but they also cook fusillini, farfalle, pipe rigate, rigatoni, and gnocchi on a regular basis. These pastas are available in the U.S., but we tend not to cook them as often as the Italians do. In addition, rice lovers can’t miss the risotto here. It is not like risotto at most American restaurants: Italian risotto is filled with local mellow cheese, fish, mushrooms and barolo. Meat is also essential in Italy. In Florence, having “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” should be on everybody’s to do list. That is the Florentine steak that comes from Chianina. The ingredients are of a high quality, so Italians use the original recipe to keep its fresh flavor. The meat is frozen for two weeks, then grilled on both sides with charcoal and olive oil until there is no blood. Because the steak is very thick, the middle part is usually raw, but it is definitely soft and flavorful.

There are some food rules in Italy. For instance, there is no chicken pasta dish in Italy, because pasta is the main course rather than a side dish. The typical Italian meal structure usually consists of an appetizer, first course and a second course with a side dish. The first course contains staple food, such as risotto, pasta, gnocchi or polenta. Second course includes different meats and types of fish, like chicken, turkey, sausage, steak, salmon or salt cod. Salad is always considered as side dish. Italians don’t have any special dressings on salad, just olive oil and vinegar. There is no take away coffee in Italy, since Italian people drink freshly brewed espresso in actual espresso cups while sitting down, rather than any latte or venti sized macchiatos. Food is intended to be enjoyed and not mindlessly consumed.

We also participated in community service during the semester. There is a very impressive community garden called Orti Dipinti, which is a sustainable garden. We helped to weed, water and clean, and our group also tried to find a problem in the garden and solve it. When I first walked in, I saw a shelf on the left-hand side, which had a postcard, tea bags, and instructions on how to make a tea bag. The garden is not large, and it was rebuilt from a waste playground. I was surprised that this small garden has so many different types of plants and vegetables in wooden containers. It is possible to pick eggplants and tomato in the city! There are also lots of unique design elements in the garden, like a bottle wall that used recycled waste wine bottles as plants’ containers. Lingering in the garden is a wonderful restorative moment during a busy day.

The program also offered me the opportunity to volunteer at a local restaurant and supermarket, which was the best experience for me to get familiar with this country. I went to La Spada, a restaurant that serves traditional Italian food, and helped to grill steak and place plates. I also went to Sant’Ambrogio market and worked in the seafood section to clean the fish and sell the products. Studying how cook Italian food with the resident chef was impressive. Eleven of us were divided into three groups, and each group created their own menu through research for the final cooking show. The chef, Francesco, made specific recipes for us to memorize and practice. My group made cabbage soup with cannellini as antipesto, pappardelle with white truffle sauce as primo, peposo stew with polenta as secondo, and cream puff balls as dolce. Cabbage soup is a healthy appetizer from a nutritional view since our other courses didn’t have any vegetables. Tuscana is a truffle-growing region, so we could buy the good-quality truffle sauce to make with pappardelle. Peposo stew is a traditional tuscan pepper beef stew, which was invented by the furnace workers who baked the terracotta tiles for the Brunelleschi’s famous Duomo in Florence. Our dessert, cream puff balls, is called bongo fiorentino in Italian, and it was recommended by Francesco. Bongo fiorentino is very popular in Florence. We made the cream puffs first, and dipped them in the chocolate sauce. It was the best dessert I’ve ever had!

Staying in Italy is very different from living in the U.S. I purchased the most fresh fruits and vegetable in the local market everyday, and cooked everyday. The lifestyle in Italy was slow and enjoyable. By comparison, in the U.S., there are more fast food restaurants and takeaway coffee. People focus more on working instead of cooking. Each lifestyle has its own characteristics. I enjoy cooking everyday like Italians, but when I have a lot of work to do, it’s nice to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks since I don’t have time to wait for fresh espresso. I appreciated this study abroad program because I could experience different cultures. For a snapshot of my time in Italy, check out my video!